STILL FISHIN', A Tale of the Unexplained

People sometimes ask me what I find so fascinating about Lake of the Ozarks. It's a combination of things, really. My memory of the lake goes back nearly fifty years, and it's been a half-century of fun and family and wonderful vacations. But in all those many times at the lake, there is one incident so very different from all the rest--one peculiar night many years ago that I cannot explain even now. Don't read this story alone, my friends, at least not if you plan to go out on the lake after dark, for the lake can be a mysterious place at night...and you may not be prepared for what you'll find there.

For many years my family vacationed on the Gravois Arm, at a place called Rocky Comfort Lodge. Like all resorts, Rocky Comfort had a fishing dock and, like many others, the fishing off that dock was pretty good. You could count on catching crappie just about any time of day, as well as bass, and many a night you could pull out some good size catfish, too.

Because that old dock had such a good reputation as a fishing spot, some of the locals came there to fish. They knew the resort owner, and all was well. One of the local fishermen was a fellow I knew as Mr. Arnold. He was a kindly old man, a widower who lived in a small trailer about a half mile down the lake.

Mister Arnold usually came over by boat--sometimes in the late afternoon, sometimes toward dusk. He had a small fishing boat with an ancient Evinrude motor on it. That little motor couldn't have been more than five horsepower and it made a peculiar puttering sound as it came across the lake. Mister Arnold joked that he couldn't get anywhere if the wind were blowing much, and I believe he was right. Since he often came down at night, he had jury-rigged some navigation lights onto his boat, powered by a car battery. But something was never quite right with the wiring--the lights often would flicker when he hit a wave and sometimes they would go out altogether. Then the boat was more or less invisible on the water with only the faint coughing of that tiny motor marking its progress over the water.

I was thirteen or fourteen years old when I first got to know Mr. Arnold. We became fast friends. He'd help me tie on hooks and lures, and tell me where to cast and what depth to fish. He was generally right, too. Under his tutelage I became a darn good fisherman, in spite of my age. And of course we'd talk while we fished. As the sky turned dark and the lake grew quiet, we would talk of everything from baseball to astronomy. I would lead most of the conversation, and tell him what I had been doing that summer, and what school had been like last year, and which classes I would take next year, and who my best friends were at home, and how I'd seen the Echo satellite pass amongst the stars one night, and why the Kansas City A's couldn't ever win. Poor Mr. Arnold, patient through it all, listened nevertheless, and asked questions, and always seemed interested.

I realize now that Mr. Arnold knew a whole lot more about me than I did about him. In my quieter moments he told me that he was from near Festus, Missouri, where he had a farm. But he said he wasn't as well as he used to be and now he spent most summers at the lake. His married son ran the farm and Mr. Arnold would go back there to live each winter. That was about all I knew of him--except that he had a warm, friendly smile. His eyes seemed to twinkle with delight whenever I told him of some boyish adventure from back home. I believe he enjoyed my company as much as I enjoyed his.

One time, when the fishing was slow and the night darker than usual, Mr. Arnold waxed nostalgic. He spoke of old times on the lake mentioned that he hadn't many years left.

"You mean here at the lake?" I asked him, full of the innocence of youth.

"No, Mike," he replied. "I mean livin'. I'm an old man, you know, and I can't go on livin' much longer."

His comment filled me with awe, and a little fear. "Ain't you scared of dying?" I asked in hushed tones.

Mr. Arnold paused for a time and then sighed. "I don't really want to die," he said. "I'm not lookin' forward to it, but I'm not scared of it. In any case, there's nothing in this world I can do about it."

It was then for the first time that I realized my friends and family would die someday. I had never occured to me before as more than a slim possibility. I was quiet for some time afterwards. Finally, as if to chase away the spell, I said, "I'd just as soon you keep on fishin' here with me, Mr. Arnold."

I could see the gleam of his smile even in the darkness.

"I will," he replied. And we never spoke of it again.

Those wonderful carefree days of summer, that I thought would never end, eventually did slip away. Where they went, I do not know, but in the blink of an eye it was winter, and I was back in school. And then another summer came, and left just as quickly. Season after season followed, and when high school ended I enlisted in the Army, and the gentle world I knew came crashing down around me.

I had not known cruelty, and never had dreamed of the harshness that is so common in this world. The inhumane scenes I witnessed while overseas made me sick in body and soul. I began to see life as a mean and deadly game with neither compassion nor purpose. Nothing surprised me anymore, no evil was beyond comprehension. What I once had dreaded was now reality; what I once had been was now a dream.

And yet I survived. My time was over and I came home, but the nightmare still lived within me. Home on leave for thirty days, I found myself a stranger among friends and lost among familiar sights. Here was a country at peace, with so much of everything and nothing to fear. I was overwhelmed by it; I could not comprehend it. The sight of children at a playground or shoppers at a mall brought tears to my eyes. I didn't know why. I only knew that I must go somewhere that might bring sense to my confusion and calm my troubled soul.

My parents had scheduled a vacation around my furlough, and I went with them back to the familiar grounds of Rocky Comfort Lodge. Some people are drawn to a place, I suppose, and derive a sense of strength and well-being from it. For me that place was the lake. That shimmering blue water and those verdant green hills cheered me considerably. I needed to be there.

On my first evening back after an absence of two years, I wandered down to the fishing dock. No one was there. In the fading light I could see that the dock was a little worse for wear but still intact and probably still a good place to fish. So I threw in my line and watched as the darkening sky obscured the hilltops. All was quiet. Memories of pleasant evenings began to surface in my thoughts. They were faint, brief glimpses--mere snapshots, really--yet wonderful to behold.

Then, in the distance, I heard a faint, familiar sound. I looked up, but saw nothing. I listened harder, thinking perhaps I had imagined it. There it was again, more distinct now and utterly recognizable as Mr. Arnold's old Evinrude. I couldn't see him at all, his navigation lights were out, but on he came, clearly headed for the fishing dock. He was nearly alongside the dock before I could make him out and I jumped up to help him secure a line.

"Mister Arnold! It's me, Mike Gillespie!" I shouted excitedly as I reached to grab his tackle box. "Remember me? I've been in the Army. I'm back on leave."

"Of course I remember you, Mike," he said. "Of course. Fishin' hasn't been the same since you left." He climbed up onto the dock and smiled at me with that same friendly face I had known before. "My, you've gotten big. They must be feedin' you well."

"I suppose so," I replied without much enthusiasm as the image of field messes and cold C-ration meals came into my mind. "They've feed me, though some meals were better than others."

"So what are the fish eatin' tonight?" he asked.

It occured to me then that I hadn't had so much as a nibble. "I don't know, Mr. Arnold. My stringer's empty. I was hoping you could tell me."

And so we sat down and began to fish. Mister Arnold said to forget the crappie, that we'd have better luck with catfish tonight. I changed hooks and bait, and he was right. The catfish were there and they were biting. Between fishing and talking Mr. Arnold and I had a great night. I forgot my troubles, and I can say in hindsight that they began to fade away from that time on.

We were out there till two or three in the morning. Then Mr. Arnold said it was time to go, adding as he did that I seemed in a lot better spirits now. I said that I did feel better and told him I looked forward to our next night of fishing.

He got back into his boat and cranked the old Evinrude back to life. "See ya, Mike," he said as he pushed the boat away from the dock. I motioned to his nav lights--they still weren't on--and he toggled the switch a couple of times without any success. "Oh, well," he said. "Nobody's going to hit me." And then he was gone. I listened a long while, until the sound of his motor faded in the distance. Then I packed up my things and went back to the lodge, and slept like a boy again.

The next morning, early, I went out in my father's boat with no particular distination in mind. As I cruised around I decided to swing past Mr. Arnold's place, thinking perchance he might be out. He lived on a small, bending cove with no other houses or cabins around. The lake there was calm and still and I felt like an intruder on those unblemished waters. As I came idling around the bend I saw his dock, or what was left of it, for it had been tossed upon the shore and was very nearly in pieces. His trailer was no longer there on the lot. In fact, the lot had reverted to weeds and brush and the gravel road that led to it was no better. Obviously, Mr. Arnold had moved, but I hadn't thought to ask him about it the night before.

When I got back to Rocky Comfort, my father asked me where I had gone.

"Oh, just out seein' the lake again, dad," I replied.

"I figured you'd gotten lost after being away two years," he said.

"Me?" I said in mock astonishment. "Lost on the lake? You know that ain't gonna happen. But I am curious about one thing. Where did Mr. Arnold move to?"

"What do mean, 'Where'd he move to?'"

"I mean, dad, where is he livin' now. I went past his old place. It's all grown up in weeds."

"Well, Mike, Mister Arnold died about the time you were in basic training. I'm sure we wrote to you about it."

I stood there speechless for the longest time. I wanted to tell my father that I had fished with Mr. Arnold the night before...but I didn't tell him, nor have I told anyone until this very day. I really don't remember any letter from my folks about Mr. Arnold's death. Maybe I didn't want to remember. I just can't say. But this much I do know: I went fishing with Mr. Arnold that strange night, nearly forty years ago. I will always remember it as the night a gentle old man helped restore my faith in goodness. And it was as simple as going fishing.

I'd like to think that Mr. Arnold is still fishing, even today.

© 2002, 2011 by Michael Gillespie. All rights reserved.